Unleash Discovery for Higher Ed Transformation

Unleash Discovery for Higher Ed Transformation

Technology companies rely on "the discovery process"—sharing critical information among stakeholders to prepare for agile transformation. It makes sense that as higher ed increasingly relies on technology to keep up with student needs, institutional leaders would begin to embrace the discovery process themselves. Cross-departmental sharing of data, processes, and technology builds a system ripe for innovation.

A recent roundtable brought together changemakers Kristy Harner, director of student financial services at Lee University, and Cathy Ewing, financial project portfolio manager at the University of Alaska System. Together with Ellucian leaders Sania Khan, vice president of experience design, and Joel Sackett, vice president of product management, they unpacked the meaning behind "discovery" and why it's a critical step for improving the student and staff experience.

By redesigning processes within their ERP systems, Lee University and the University of Alaska System are prioritizing digital transformation and building resilience for the future.

What Does the Discovery Process Look Like?

Discovery continuously bridges the experience of users, developers, and stakeholders to help improve business processes. Ellucian has held 67 discovery projects, or "bursts of innovation," as Khan likes to call them, in the past year. When the Bursar Design Sprint kicked off in 2022, Harner jumped at the opportunity for Lee University to get involved.

Harner reflected on the experience and highlighted a key business process transformation that came from the design sprint: mirroring the staff experience to the student experience. Within Lee University's ERP, they shared the small but mighty toggle feature that allows their staff to see exactly what the student sees in their self-service portal. This was a game changer not only for the frontline of advisors who gained access to a clearer understanding of student needs, but also for other institutions that took part in that discovery process.

Discovery isn't just about sharing ideas among peers. Ewing shared her personal take on the process, explaining how when you don't have a roadmap or a direction, that's when discovery comes in as your compass. As a higher education professional, you get to ask, "What's the dream outcome?" From there, you can begin the process of rapid ideation.

Ewing and her team at the University System of Alaska follow the "Five Why's" principle when taking on business transformation—a method of problem-solving that starts by asking "why" five times. For example, when reimagining the student experience, ask questions like, "Why is this important to the student?" and "Why now?" to get to the root of issues.

Khan chimed in on the concept of rapid ideation and the Google Design Sprint Methodology her team and customers adopted in Ellucian's discovery process. A key to rapid ideation is avoiding wheel-spinning. It can be easy for teams to get stuck on one component of a challenge and not keep the big strategic picture in mind. Having a clear methodology in place can help avoid this. And once you have your vision established, your "why" identified, and the right tools and team in place, that's when the transformation begins.

Every Department Plays a Role in Digital Transformation

Ewing believes in the mutually beneficial investment between the University of Alaska System and Ellucian. "The more we help move Ellucian forward, the more we gain as an institution," she explained.

That "help" can come from any department or team. As part of a data due diligence design sprint, the University of Alaska System was able to take part in a conversation on how they input and move data within their ERP. Though this change began in the finance space, it has since expanded across the system.

Sackett built upon Ewing's example by emphasizing, "Inertia has tremendous power." When tackling the challenges of change management and determining your path forward, you may have to abandon the status quo. But once those shifts have momentum, it can trigger a larger culture change from "settling" to "succeeding," empowering every team member to work together toward stronger outcomes.

This all tied back to Harner's observation that the goal for any institution is to serve its students effectively. In the same way higher education professionals lead with a clear understanding of student needs, it's equally important to do the same for users in the business technology transformation space. Identify the people who will be the most impacted by the change early in your discovery process. From there, begin with empathy and build your processes around making sure everyone can be successful.

Feedback is Shaping the Ellucian SaaS Roadmap

For many institutions, change management is most urgent today for the journey to SaaS. The panelists discussed how proving the business case for SaaS can be challenging with certain departments and stakeholders. Khan shared a recent example in which a registrar was one of the last constituents to get on board with SaaS at their institution. But then, a leader from another department was able to showcase the value of migration with one simple question: "What if this could unblock your top challenge?" For the registrar, this question removed the hesitancy of change and allowed them to visualize a new future in an open, interoperable SaaS environment.

Change aversion resonates with most higher ed leaders. All panelists agreed that within their teams and departments, they've experienced being afraid of what they might lose with a big shift. But whether it's an organizational restructuring, SaaS migration, or adopting new AI tools, discovery can help alleviate worries and chart a collaborative path forward.

In the higher ed tech space, discovery unites people across departments and institutions, helping visualize change as necessary and beneficial. With a clear vision and plan, higher ed can let go of how things have been and create space for what can come next.

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